Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Treacherous days, treacherous texts.

November 14, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Malachi 4:1-2a

Treacherous days, treacherous texts.

Treacherous days because the end is coming, as the texts insist. Treacherous texts because they will always lure some into trying to figure them out, to solve them, to determine the time of the end. This is treacherous because, first, it has never worked; people throughout history have confidently announced the last days, but the evidence suggests we are still here. Treacherous, second, because it cannot work; trying to solve the texts is an inherent genre error, reading them as mathematics or code rather than as symbolic or parabolic theological warnings. And treacherous, third (and most important), because all attempts to figure out the texts is to make us the master of the word rather than vice versa.

But here we are again, coming to the end of the church year and inundated with sundry texts of the end. What are we to do with them? There is, I think, only one way to read these in a way that lets the texts (that is, the word of God) retain the upper hand: to understand that the time is now. It is not something to be calculated; it was not then, it is not out there, it is now. Now is the time of the divine judgment; now is the time of the divine deliverance. John got it right, “The hour is coming, and is now here” (John 5:25, etc.). Thus, to be sure, treacherous times.
Malachi means “my messenger,” and that is just the point. These are not human ruminations, but words from God that seek to turn us to the Lord and prepare us for God’s coming into our hearts and into our world.
Malachi wrote most likely in the fifth century B.C.E. The temple had been rebuilt, but worship had already fallen again into disorder, and the prophet was sent to warn people against the offenses they were committing before God—manipulative worship, corrupt leaders, oppression of hired workers, widows, and orphans, rejection of aliens. Watch out, says the prophet, the day of the Lord is coming, and it will bring with it “the messenger of the covenant.” It sounds good, but “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (3:2). To pray for the coming of the Lord, Malachi knows is to pray for a time of refining and purification that will not be pleasant. But it is the only way to prepare us for God’s presence and God’s deliverance.

A danger in reading our text will be to hear it in terms of “us” and “them”—when God appears, the evildoers will be burnt up, but for “us” (“for you who revere my name”) it will be a time of healing. There may be times and places where this reading makes sense—when, for example (as in the text), there are corrupt leaders who despise God’s word and oppress those in greatest need, or, perhaps, in more recent times when cynical and atheistic ideologies deliberately attack people of faith. However, although there remain places in the world where this more or less applies, for most of us, that time is not now. And even in such places, an evangelical reading of the texts will never proclaim the “good guys” righteous in the sense that they, too, are not always in need of divine cleansing.

A more appropriate evangelical reading will understand that the line between “us” and “them” is never a line between me and the other but always a line down through the middle of me. Our simul iustus et peccator reading (at the same time saint and sinner) will recognize that each of us is at once both good and bad. Thus, the coming of God will be a time to burn away the impurities that reside within me, as painful as that always is, in order to prepare me for the healing that comes with the “sun of righteousness.”
The sun disk served as a symbol of the deity in both Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion, understandably, of course. What else is as strong and glorious as the sun? The Bible, too, makes the comparison: the Lord is “a sun and a shield” (Psalm 84:11); only God can outshine the sun (Isaiah 60:19; see Revelations 21:23; 22:5)—this latter statement serving perhaps as a polemic against the religions that identify the sun with god.
For the righteous (in our understanding, those made righteous by the saving work of God in Christ), for them, this powerful Sun God brings healing. Healing, as used here, is a big word in biblical theology. God self-identifies as “healer” in Exodus 15:26 and as “savior” in Exodus 20:2; healing and saving (or forgiving) are used in parallel in texts like Jeremiah 17:14 and Psalm103:3. This is, in one sense, not two things but one: God’s restoration of all things, saving and healing all that is in distress or need. This is who God is and what God does.

Those in particular need can and will rejoice in the announcement that God comes like the sun, with “healing in its wings.” Throughout the Bible, God promises to heal those in distress. Prayers for healing occur throughout Scripture and are always in place. What that healing will look like is up to God, of course, and will be seen by believers through the eyes of faith. But God heals, for this is who God is—a significant part of the good news.

The creative preacher could certainly develop a sermon around the “wings” in this text, playing with that image as does Scripture itself (check your concordance). God’s wings are as strong and magnificent as the wings of the eagle (e.g., Exodus 19; 4; Deuteronomy 32:11) and as comforting and protecting as the wings of the mother hen (Matthew 23:37). Those in need seek or are invited to take refuge in the shelter of God’s wings (Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; 36:7, etc.). In that shelter, the rescued one can sing at last (Psalm 63:7). Because God soars, so can those who “hope in the Lord” (Isaiah 40:31.) As Malachi notes, here, at last, under the divine wings, is where the faithful find healing.